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How the Yankees can optimize their catcher role

Splitting duties isn’t a reflection of a guy’s talent, but an acknowledgment of a better way.

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps no position in the game has changed over the past twenty years like catcher. The Posey Rule has reduced collisions at home plate, and an increased focus on pitch framing has shifted the core defensive competency of the position. Meanwhile, offensive production out of the catcher spot has declined precipitously, with 2018 and 2019 the two worst seasons for catcher hitting in the last twenty.

Even in 2020, median catcher output was an 89 wRC+, the lowest of any position group. Catchers are, by and large, the worst hitting players in the league. Yankee fans have been somewhat spoiled by Gary Sánchez, who even though he stunk the entire 2020 campaign still drips offensive potential, especially when the bar for catchers is so low.

One of the central questions around the Yankees this offseason, and really every offseason, is how to get the most out of Sánchez. At the same time, Kyle Higashioka really needs to have a big 2021 - he’ll be 31 next April, and outside of one three-homer game last year, slashed .205/.205/.295, an even worse line than Sánchez posted over the season.

To that end, 2021 is the best time for the Yankees to explore a true catching tandem. The 140-game catcher is a thing of the past, and indeed, teams are more and more abandoning the idea of a starting catcher at all, handing out much more even playing time. To that end, I’ve looked at what I’ll call the Lion’s Share percent, or, the highest share of a team’s starts given to one backstop:

JT Realmuto is baseball’s best catcher, yet the Phillies only start him behind the plate less than 60% of the time. Yasmani Grandal and Will Smith would be the next two guys in the conversation for the game’s best backstop, and the White Sox and Dodgers barely have them starting half their games.

Playing time is a reflection of your talent, except when it comes to catcher. Teams increasingly appear willing to reduce the number of starts their “starter” gets, employing a true tandem. I think there are various reasons for this - teams are obviously mitigating injury risk, for one.

But moreover, I think the increased complexities of game-calling make the case for reducing the Lion Share percentage. More pitchers on a roster, throwing more pitches than ever, with much more complex game plans means a catcher’s pregame workload is higher. 20 years ago, Pudge Rodriguez only needed to worry about how Kenny Rogers wanted to attack hitters. Now, Higashioka doesn’t just have to worry about Gerrit Cole’s gameplan, but also Chad Green’s, Zack Britton’s and Aroldis Chapman’s.

The Yankees are at a crossroads with their catching situation. Both Sánchez and Higashioka have to prove that lackluster 2020s were flukes or, at least, temporary setbacks. What better way to prove it than to adopt the model we’re seeing lots of other teams incorporate - a true catching tandem, to bring out the best in each backstop.